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- 23 Nov 2009
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Leather: Enduring Love Affair or Artful Coverup?

Walpole’s deputy chairman gets under the skin of leather’s relationship with luxury, sparking a debate with British leather goods brand executives about its future.


LONDON – “Mmmm, do you know,” said my lunch host, as he caressed the bench between us, “I think this is real leather.” He pressed his nose against the seat and invited me to do the same. The problem, apart from the odd looks we were getting, was that I knew, for all its flawless texture and fashionable shade of grey-green, this particular pelt had been given the leather equivalent of Botox — and much more besides.

This got me thinking about leather’s extraordinary journey in relation to the rise of the luxury sector. Certainly, leather goods have enjoyed a golden period. Margins have been mouth-wateringly attractive and growth dependably good. The category encompasses a wide range of products including the Birkin, that icon of luxury timelessness and craftsmanship, alongside shoes and entry-level accessories that allowed for the dramatic expansion of our customer base. But what of leather in its own right? Has it really flourished as a luxury material along the way?

For thousands of years — before its ascent into the realm of luxury — leather was foremost a functional material. As Robert Ettinger, chairman of the luxury leather goods brand Ettinger remarks, “Nothing has ever replaced it. It is waterproof and yet it breathes. It is just too clever.” Bill Amberg, founder of the leather firm that also bears his name, echoes the sentiment: “Even now, for cars or planes, it is the best material. It is naturally fire retardant as it chars and doesn’t burn and is incredibly hard wearing.” In other words, for most of its history, leather has been an everyday material exploited primarily for its practical properties.

All this changed with the advent of man-made equivalents. Even the luxury end of the market initially embraced these new materials as cool, exciting and different. But what came next was even worse for leather’s “purists”. Leather was split into multiple layers, tanned and dyed into all colours of the rainbow, stamped with any pattern and finally coated with the very vinyl that had supplanted it. This was leather’s final indignity, the nadir of the many transgressions it had endured. These new variations were leather in name but plastic in fact.

Yet in spite of this, today leather is appreciated as never before and we in the luxury sector have spearheaded its renaissance. Or have we presided over something less edifying? Some critics feel the industry has devalued the raw material in order to drive down costs while marketing it as something special to guileless consumers.

For Ettinger, “the underlying quality of the raw material is still critical to its longevity and performance. Eventually the weaknesses will show through however good the surface.” Amberg agrees that “eventually a piece cut from the belly will show,” but that large commercial tanneries can “use 100% of a skin that largely looks and behaves the same.” In his view, technology itself isn’t the problem but rather “the desire of some, such as the automotive upholstery industry, for a super-pigmented flawless material called leather, which just doesn’t exist”.


A Tanner Krolle Travel Case and Bill Amberg Medicine Bag


John O’Sullivan, chief operating officer of Tanner Krolle is less sanguine: “I have nothing against the technology itself but it is all too easy for the customer to be duped. Too often I have seen deep scars filled with wax and the final product sold for a high price point.” He adds that “very few brands buy Grade A skins for the simple reason of cost. For example, only six out of a hundred skins can be called Barenia calf and that costs between €65-70 [$97-125] a metre. The majority of brands are paying less than half that.”

Bill Amberg agrees that there are relatively few upholders of the very best standards but cautions against ”confusing different markets.” He explains that “there are only about five specialist tanneries whose work could still be considered an art. The rest are […] more commercial tanneries but that doesn’t mean overall quality has [necessarily] been slipping.”

Not all luxury consumers want or can afford the very highest standards; what is more, different products require different materials. Dunhill is another company that recognises this. Its specialist factory in London still produces traditional bridle leather for a relative few discerning customers while the bulk of its growing leather range supplies the wider commercial market. Max Summerskill, general manager of leather at Dunhill, highlights the role of technology in their approach: “We have recently launched a new signature leather called Chassis, which is stamped to resemble carbon fibre. It is a high-tech finish which we have developed with a German tannery and is scratch and water resistant.” Ettinger is also enthusiastic about new techniques but cautions that “an embossed finish does not [necessarily] mean the leather is inferior.” He adds, moreover, that he has noticed an increased interest in natural vegetable tanned leathers — a point equally noted by Summerskill and others.


Jude Law in the Dunhill fall 2009 advertising campaign


O’Sullivan believes that most true luxury consumers are not looking for covered leather but that “they are drawn to leather which develops its own patina with use — just like an old piece of furniture.” However, he concedes that preferences will of course vary substantially across different markets. Ettinger says that the majority of unprompted comments on his company’s website are about the leather itself rather than about the product and this bottom-up interest in the material is key. Amberg agrees, stating “the demand for quality is working its way through every level of the luxury market” and concluding that ”overall there has been a raising of the bar in terms of the raw material, [which] will increasingly mean that tanneries will have to work harder to source higher quality skins, especially organic skins.”

What does this all mean for the future profitability of the leather category? If consumer interest in natural leathers is increasingly combined with better knowledge about what constitutes quality, surely it can only mean a gradual rise in the costs of skins, can it not? One obvious outcome, as O’Sullivan suggests, might be further compromises in quality to keep a lid on prices. “If you want to de-spec a bag, you don’t economise on hardware as that is what customers notice straight away,” he says. “Likewise for manufacturing: wherever it is done, it needs to be of a certain level. Therefore buying a poorer quality skin and hot-plating it is an obvious choice.”

Could consumer pressure keep these sorts of practices at bay in future? For the moment, at least, the costs of the skins are not an issue. However, as Summerskill points out, while most tanneries’ current prices are competitive, “this will not last forever,” implying what Amberg too believes is inevitable — that is, an eventual squeeze on margins. Good thing consumer demand for leather will probably continue to grow thanks to its perception as a “natural” material. The question that remains unanswered in all this is whether we are about to enter a period that leads to higher standards for leather as has happened for materials in other luxury product categories. I, for one, remain on the side of the optimists. One day I am sure my restaurant seat will look, feel and be the real thing. I might even allow myself a surreptitious sniff.


Guy Salter is Deputy Chairman of The Walpole